The global COVID-19 crisis will require scientists and scholars who are educated and trained to take on the world’s most dangerous problems. The Biodefense program at the Schar School creates leaders in the field. Look for their stories on this page in coming days.
When she was 9-years-old, a family member handed Saskia Popescu a book to read during summer vacation. Much of Richard Preston’s 1995 nonfiction thriller “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story” went over her head, but young Saskia was fascinated by the riveting story of viral hemorrhagic fevers, Level 4 biocontainment areas, and Ebola-infected monkeys escaping into suburban Northern Virginia.
“It was really cool and it got me interested in infectious diseases and how we struggle to manage them,” she said. She was so taken with the idea of controlling diseases, for Halloween she dressed as a pathologist, complete with hazmat suit.
These days the hazmat suit isn’t a costume but a part of her occupation: Popescu is a real-life infection prevention epidemiologist, working to control infections in Phoenix-area hospitals and ensure they’re ready for the next outbreak, like COVID-19.
Popescu recently finished her PhD in the biodefense program of the Schar School, where she was also a graduate research assistant. Her research addresses the roadblocks for hospitals investing in infection prevention efforts in the face of diseases like Ebola and SARS. During her time at the Schar School, she was named a Fellow in the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.
Although she is no longer a student, Popescu remains connected to Mason as managing editor of The Pandora Report, an online publication prepared by faculty and students in the Schar School’s Biodefense program that details the world’s bio-related “big problems.”
Popescu graduated with degrees from the University of Arizona three times, first as an undergrad in Classics (“I studied ancient Roman history with a focus on how disease impacted military campaigns—totally left-field, I know”), then with a master’s degree in public health in infectious diseases and epidemiology, and then another master’s in international security.
It was her strong interest in both the medical side of the field and the policy side that drew her to the Schar School’s biodefense program.
“The combination of my master’s degrees, for me, is very much what Greg Koblentz is doing in the biodefense program,” she said. Associate Professor Koblentz is the director of the biodefense graduate program at Mason.
“The program brings it all together to understand the complexities of health security,” she said. “We have experts from both fields coming to the classroom who can speak to all aspects, which is huge.”
Popescu’s experience on the front lines of health security and her expertise in infection prevention and control are key to the success of her research, Koblentz said.
“Her research on how to strengthen infection prevention systems in hospitals is a great blending of theory and practice and has the potential to have a huge impact on the field,” he said. “Infection prevention is too often ignored by medical practitioners and by academics. Saskia is trying to change that and I think she'll succeed.
“The continuing threat of emerging infectious diseases and rise of antimicrobial resistance around the world means we need people like Saskia who can skillfully bridge the gap between science and policy now more than ever.”
The events of the last few months verify that.
As for Richard Preston’s life-changing book, Popescu said, “When you look back on it you can see it’s the most scientifically inaccurate drama ever created. But at the time it was inspiring for a young mind.”